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FIFA World Cup 2018: Second Semifinal

The Second Semi-Final

Croatia 2-1 England (aet)

Croatia utilized a slightly different 4-2-3-1 formation than their previous matches. When it played like a 4-1-4-1, Marcelo Brozovic slotted inside in front of the back four, leaving talisman Luka Modric free to play a more advanced role through the center to get closer to goal to make attacking runs into the box for target man Mario Mandzukuc already up top to get on service, or bring in Ivan Perisic and Ante Rebic from the flanks to help in attack, with box-to-box midfielder Ivan Rakitic trailing in.

The Three Lions used the same 3-1-4-2 formation they’ve been using to success so far that can morph into a 3-5-2 when they needed to get forward. While wingers Ashley Young and Kieran Trippier brought the ball forward on the wings, the key to England’s attack was the speedy, quick forward runs into the final third by Dele Alli on the right and Raheem Sterling through the center, and sideline-to-sideline runs by Jesse Lingard, all servicing Harry Kane in the box, who was either going to come back deep and bring the ball forward or stay in the box tucked in behind the back-line to take shots on target. Because England were using a risky three-man backline, holding midfielder Jordan Henderson became exceptionally important linking up with the forward attack. Expected Croatian right back Sime Vrsaljko to sit deep to better deal with English flankers Alli and Sterling on the left.

England scored 8 of their 11 goals coming into this game on set pieces: In the 5th minute, it became 9 of 12 on a set piece direct kick from Trippier (the result of a quick direct run by Sterling). Alli found lots of pockets of space behind the Croatian back four, making moves from side to side. As soon as England won the ball, Sterling was up front as the quick outlet into the final third. Croatia’s midfield took a lot of time getting off the schneid in the first half, their movements just seemed to be a little off, like they were getting frustrated early. Keeping Croatia from an organized buildup with their world-class midfield was England’s quick runs and passes forward, forcing Croatia to transition back in defense.

It took 30 minutes, but Croatia realized that if they tried a patient attacking buildup then England were transitioning back in numbers to organize a disciplined defense, but if Croatia were a little more direct with their attack, England were left a little unprepared and less organized in the back. Because they got behind early, Croatia had to press England high. If Croatia was going to continue putting crosses in the box, they had to commit more numbers forward than just Mandzukic.

The break refreshed the Croatians, and they started the second half with greater energy and purpose. That’s exactly what finally happened for Croatia; a long diagonal ball into the box by Sime Vrsaljko, England central defender Kyle Walker is caught flat-footed, and Perisic gets on the end of a one-timer in the 68th minute. England quickly got out of sorts in the back, and Croatia dialed it up a notch. Not much of this game was played in the middle third after that. When they had the possession England had Croatia pinned in their end defending, but when they gave up possession to Croatia they tended to get lulled into a false sense of security; Croatia’s midfield is just too good not to make an impact at some point.

Croatia’s remarkable level of energy was also key, with this game the third time they have been forced to negotiate extra time in Russia. Modric, who looked exhausted for much of the game, still ended up as the conductor for Croatia. Jordan Henderson was being asked to do the job of two men, and it was punishing work, with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic dictating play. When Southgate finally made the change late in the second half, it was to replace Henderson with Eric Dier rather than support him. Perisic, who switched between left and right flanks on several occasions during the game, was a constant threat with his pace, direct running and finishing. And that was when Mandzukuc finally showed up in the box in the 109th minute on a cross by Perisc, catching the England back three switched off at just the right moment (England’s Alli just couldn’t keep up with him the entire match).

This incredible run by the Three Lions came to an unceremonious end. Croatia’s superior quality and command of the ball told in the Luzhniki Stadium, and now the unexpected national side get a date in this same stadium on Sunday for the World Cup.

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FIFA World Cup 2018: Semifinals Preview

Semi-Finals Preview

The semi-finals finds four squads left competing for the World Cup championship. With Italy in 2006, Spain in 2010, and Germany in 2014, this year’s winner will once again come from UEFA (Union of European Football Associations). The recent European dominance extends past just the championship: including this year, 7 of the last 8 finalists and 13 of the last 16 semifinalists will have been from Europe. Why has Europe risen to such domination? The best theory seems to be the amount of money flowing through the European soccer leagues.  The major European leagues, the English Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, and Serie A, make and spend huge amounts of money, bring in the best players in the world, and have the leading youth development programs. Even the lesser European leagues are awash in money. When you can pay and develop the best talent, you are a step up on other countries and leagues.

This World Cup has already seen a number of surprises. The reigning champions and #1 ranked team, Germany, failed to advance out of the group stage. The #2 ranked Brazilian squad got bounced in the quarterfinals. 70th ranked Russia made a run all the way to the quarterfinals. We are now left with 3rd ranked Belgium, 7th ranked France, 12th ranked England and 20th ranked Croatia.  Here’s what to look for in the semi-final match-ups.

France vs. Belgium

France got here by a 2-0 victory over a Uruguayan team playing without star forward Edinson Cavani. Except for giving up three goals to Argentina in the round of 16, the French defense has been stalwart, allowing only one other goal. They feature great speed on offense with Kilian Mbappe and Paul Pogba and have Antoine Griezmann patrolling and controlling the midfield. France has proven to be one of the most complete teams in the tournament.

Belgium was one of the hottest teams coming into the Cup and continued that streak through group play. In the knockout rounds though, Belgian form has been a bit confounding.  Facing a surprising Japanese team in the round of 16, Belgium fell behind 2-0, before a furious three goal rally in the final 25 minutes got them through. As underdogs against the highly skilled Brazilians, the Belgians quick attacks netted two first half goals which held up for the win. Belgium is the highest ranked team left, but has shown some inconsistency in the knockout games.

France and Belgium should prove to be a good game to watch. Both defenses are good and both offenses have excellent creators, Griezmann for the French and Eden Hazard for the Belgians. However, the Belgian defense has shown some vulnerability to especially fast attackers and France has the speed to take advantage of that. Look for the French to try to play some through balls or over the top balls that Mbappe can run onto. Belgium will look to a more patient buildup with Hazard delivering balls to Romelu Lukaku to cross into the box, where they have been effective using their height. This game will be a tight one and it would not be surprising if it came down to penalty kicks. I like the French speed to prevail in the end.

Croatia vs. England

For the first time since the Golden Generation squad of 1998, Croatia returns to the semi-finals by outlasting Russia on penalty kicks. After they marched through group play, including a surprisingly dominant upset of Argentina, Croatia has squeaked through knockout round play on penalty kicks in both games. Still, Croatia showed great resilience in those games after missing a penalty kick late in the round of 16 game and giving up a late equalizer in the quarter-final game.

England is the sole group stage 2nd place finisher to get this far in the tourney. The English, despite a history of failure at PKs, overcame it to edge out Colombia in the round of 16, before taking apart Sweden in the quarterfinals, thanks in part to some incredible goalkeeping by Jordan Pickford. The Sweden game was their best showing against quality competition and the English seem to be rounding into form at the right time.

The Croatia-England game should be an interesting one. Both teams like to control the midfield with Croatian star Luka Modric a master at creating scoring opportunities while the English are among the best at scoring off of set pieces. Ball possession or the ability to deal with the lack of it may prove to be the difference. Both teams have the possession battle in all of their games but one. In the one game where the English lost the ball control battle, they lost to Belgium. The Croatians, on the other hand, lost the possession battle against Argentina, but did not let that faze them and used their opportunities to cruise to a 3-0 win.  This is further evidence of the resilience that Croatia has shown throughout. I think this resilience proves to be the difference with Croatia edging out England.

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FIFA World Cup 2018: Quarterfinals Day Two

Quarter-finals Day Two

Sweden 0-2 England

The Three Lions looked to push very high with a fluid and wide 3-1-4-2 attacking formation, hoping to keep the Swedes on their heels with Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard making attacking runs through the middle, Kieren Trippier and Ashley Young driving forward on the flanks, cultured striker Harry Kane hoping to tuck in in the box without having to come back to get the ball, and Raheem Sterling using his speed to bring the ball into the box and draw defenders away from Kane, Alli and Lingard.

Sweden has lost only once in fifteen competitive international fixtures against England, so they come into this one with a confident yet cautious 4-4-2, looking to close down the middle with Albin Ekdal protecting the back four. Their attack is centered around talisman Emil Forsberg coming in from the left, but they can bring the attack forward with Viktor Claesson tucking in underneath on the right. Ola Toivonen is the reliable scorer up top so far, because his strike partner Marcus Berg has been erratic.

Sweden chose not to press early, instead sitting back and waiting for England to bring the game to them. Sweden looked to play off their front men, bringing in Forsberg and Toivonen once the ball was in the box. England wanted to probe the center of the pitch with Alli, Lingard and Sterling, but that was right at Sweden’s defensive strength. Sweden prides itself on defending set pieces, but they got outplayed on a corner in the 30th minute when Forsberg was mismatched defending Harry Maguire, who put it in the back of the net. Sweden were 6’s and 7’s at the back when Sterling made his solo runs into the box.

In the second half, England were going to close down the middle and keep using their speed advantage with Sterling through the middle, keeping Sweden confused in the back. Sweden was at their best when they got their outside attacking midfielders inside. England’s possession kept Sweden pinned in their own third, and England’s patient buildup finally paid off with a 58th minute header by Alli. Knowing that Sweden like to intercept the ball in the middle of the field and quickly counter, England spread the field and moved the ball around. English goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was massive in this game, picking off a few surefire Swedish attempts. This was a clinical dismantling by England, who totally handcuffed the Swedes at every turn, picking them off in the midfield, and shutting down the Swedish attack before it had any chance to build up.

Russia 2-2 Croatia (3-4 pen)

The Russians went with a standard and compact 4-2-3-1 that played like a 5-3-2 when they dropped defensive midfielder Roman Zobnin back in defense and is hard to break down, with Denis Cheryshev running in from the left flank expected to quickly find Artem Dzyuba up top so Aleksandr Samedov from the right and attacking midfielder Aleksandr Golovin would trail in and help in the box.

The best midfield in the tournament belonged to Croatia, also using standard 4-2-3-1 formation that was a little more fluid than Russia’s. The key to the Croatian attack was Luka Modric, spreading the field, sitting deep, hitting long balls, finding pockets of space, coordinating the attack with Ivan Perisic coming from the left and Ante Rebic coming in from the right, both frequently switching sides; Mario Mandzukic is the lone player up top holding up play waiting for Modric, Rebic and box-to-box midfielder Ivan Rakitic to trail in.

A tight game early, both teams looking to find their rhythm and tempo. A lot of movement both on and off the ball by Croatia, but Russia stayed disciplined and compact. The game took a predictable route: Croatia possessed looking for spaces and angles, Russia intercepted the ball down low, then went route one over-the-top to Dzyuba. Croatia got way too comfortable in the back and played way too high a line; they feared nothing coming from Russia offensively. Fatal error: Cheryshev with a long range shot as the ball fell to his feet in the 32nd minute.

Finally a good attacking buildup from Croatia going through the center as Andrej Kramaric made a late run into the box and got on the end of a Mandzukic pass for a header in the 39th minute, just like they drew it up. Croatia’s midfield got more active and involved in attack in the second half, chasing down balls and finding space in the middle third. Croatian possession kept Russia pinned in their own end. Even when Russia got the ball and sent a long diagonal ball over the top into the attacking end, there were Croatian defenders surrounding Dzyuba to take it away.

Obviously not unlike with Spain, Russia’s game plan was to survive the onslaught. The longer this game went on the deeper and deeper Russia dropped back. But unlike the Spanish, Croatia was eventually able to use all that possession in extra time to find space in front for a redirect from center back Domagoj Vida in the 100th minute. I found it funny that after going down, Russia finally found its possession gene. Russia clearly are not that good of a futbol team, but they just won’t go away; a set piece header by winger Mario Fernandez in the 115th minute ties things up. It should have never gotten to penalties, but I’m glad the team that should have won did.

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